Many years ago, the professor in my introduction to philosophy class taught that philosophical texts could not be skimmed or read quickly on the bus on the way to class. Instead, the texts demanded close study over time. That lesson has stayed with me over the years. With the rise of the Internet, however, resources are available for rapid "bite-sized" introductions to philosophical thinking. I am skeptical about their long term value, but these introductions have their uses.
Beginning in 2007, David Edmonds and Nigel Warburton have maintained a popular site which offers short podcasts on philosophical topics. Edmonds and Warburton both are philosophically informed and have written highly regarded books on their own. In 2012, Edmonds and Warburton made transcripts of 25 of their podcasts and gathered them together in a book, "Philosophy Bites". Philosophy Bites Then, early in 2013, they published this sequel, titled appropriately enough "Philosophy Bites Back" which consists of the transcripts of an additional 27 podcasts. The first book approached philosophy through issues. Thus the book was arranged under five headings titled: "Ethics", "Politics", "Metaphysics and the Mind", "Aesthetics", and "God, Atheism, and the Meaning of Life", each of which received short discussions from thinkers with varying perspectives. This new book, takes a different approach. The topic headings are gone. Each of the 27 chapters (or transcripts) explores the work of an individual thinker, beginning with Socrates and ending with Derrida, rather than a philosophical issue explored by many thinkers. The discussions range over many issues including metaphysics, theism, theories of knowledge, ethics, political philosophy, and philosophy of art.
Each of the chapters follow the same basic format. Edmonds offers brief introductory comments and introduces the discussion. Warburton then interviews the speaker by asking a series of questions about the subject. He usually begins with questions asking for a short biographical introduction, proceeds to questions designed to elicit the nature of the subject's thought, and concludes by asking the speaker to assess the significance of, say, Plato or Hume, to present-day thinking about philosophy.
This book has many outstanding features. Although each chapter is brief, the speakers are highly renowned scholars in their fields. The quality of the chapters may vary somewhat, but each speaker shows a deep knowledge and enthusiasm for his or her subject and shows as well an ability to distill complex material to get to the heart of the matter. (William James once said that any philosophy could be summarized on the back of a postage stamp.) All of the podcast speakers have written extensive books upon their subjects in addition to the brief ten-page or so chapters presented here.
The speakers are engaging and lively. The chapters could not be mistaken for a full exposition of their subjects, but they provide basic information. Each individual chapter may catch the attention of a reader and encourage further reflection and more detailed reading in, for example, Plato's "Symposiusm", the subject of one of the chapters, or in detailed studies of Plato or the "Symposium". An important feature of the book is the suggestions for further reading at the end, which offers excellent primary sources by the subjects themselves or secondary sources for those inclined to detailed reading.
With 27 thinkers discussed, relatively few readers will have background familiarity with them all. For those readers familiar with philosophy, the book offers the opportunity for a quick summary of familiar figures together with short introductions to philosophers that the reader may not know or know in another context (such as the economist Adam Smith). For the newcomer, the book offers a great deal of philosophers and philosophical approaches to think about and explore further. The book opens with a brief discussion with a number of prominent scholars who are asked to identify their "favorite philosopher" and it concludes with a series of effective snappy definitions from users of the podcast who were asked to define "philosophy" in 140 characters or less. Some of the definitions are insightful.
Because of the quick-summary style presentations, and because of the teaching of my first professor of philosophy of long ago, I cannot rate this book five stars. Philosophy is always a work in process and striving for five stars. The book is a good introduction which has value in itself and which may well inspire some readers to explore further.
Here is a list of the philosophers and the speakers presented in this short volume.
1. Socrates by Mary Margared McCabe
2. Plato by Angie Hobbs
3. Aristotle by Terrence Irwin
4. Aquinas by Anthony Kenny
5. Machiavelli by Quentin Skinner
6. Montaigne by Sarah Bakewell
7. Descartes by A.C. Grayling
8. Spinoza by Susan James
9. Locke by John Dunn
10. Berkeley by John Campbell
11. Hume by Peter Millican
12. Adam Smith by Nick Phillipson
13. Rousseau by Melissa Lane
14. Burke by Richard Bourke
15. Kant by A.W. Moore
16. Hegel by Robert Stern
17. Mill by Richard Reeves
18. Kierkegaard by Clare Carlisle
19. Nietzsche by Aaron Ridley
20. Henry Sidgwick by Peter Singer
21. The American Pragmatists by Robert Talisse
22. Wittgenstein by Barry Smith
23. Frank Ramsey by Hugh Mellor
24. Sartre by Mary Warnock
25. Hayek by Chandran Kukathas
26. John Rawls by Jonathan Wolff
27. Derrida by Robert Rowland Smith